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Friday, 28 April 2017

Scotland: Scottish Poetry

I have been reading a lot of Scottish poetry over the last few days, some of the more familiar names like Muir, MacDiarmid, Duffy and Dunn, some less familiar to me. None of them "sham bards".

In this noisy, divided world, the poems (even MacDiarmid's, at times) offer a more subtle sense of identity than much of the aggressive political posturing on both sides of the Tweed.

Here's a poem entitled Scotland by Alastair Reid 


'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it? 
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'

From The Last Sark, Ellen Johnston, 1859.

"Our merchants an' mill masters they wad never want a meal.
Though a' the banks in Scotland wad for a twalmonth fail;
For some o' them hae far mair goud than ony ane can see —
What care some gentry if they're weel though a' the pair wad dee!"

Bang goes saxpence!

From a diplomatic Scottish poet:

An anonymous poem from 1501 (by "A Rhymer of Scotland", once thought to be William Dunbar), To the City of London

"London, thou art the flour of Cities all...
Gemme of all joy, jasper of jocunditie",

"Soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight,
Of high renoun, riches, and royaltie;
Of lordis, barons, and many goodly knyght;
Of most delectable lusty ladies bright..."

On Edinburgh, from The Prows O' Reekie, Lewis Spence

"O wad this braw hie-heapit toun
Sail aff like an enchanted ship,
Drift owre the warld's seas up and doun
And kiss wi' Venice lip to lip,
Or anchor into Naples Bay
A misty island far astray,
Or set her rock to Athens' wa',
Pillar to pillar, stane to stane,
The cruikit spell o' her backbane,
Yon shadow-mile o' spire and vane,
Wad ding them a'! Wad ding them a'!"

Fortune is fickle...15th century

The Testament of Cresseid

From Robert Henryson, The Complaint of Cresseid:

"Nocht is your fairnes bot ane faiding flour,
Nocht is your famous laud and hie honour
Bot wind inflat in uther mennis eiris,
Your roising reid to rotting sall retour;
Exempill mak of me in your memour
Quhilk of sic thingis wofull witnes beiris.
All welth in eird, away as wind it weiris;
Be war thairfoir, approchis neir your hour;
Fortoun is fikkill quhen scho beginnis and steiris."

See lines 461-469 (with notes) from the full poem

Seamus Heaney translation:

'Your beauty's nothing but a flower that fades,
Nothing your honoured name and famous praise
But mouthfuls of air in other people's ears.
The rot will fester in your cheek's red rose.
Remember and take cognisance: my woes
Bear witness to a world that's full of tears.
All wealth on earth is wind that flits and veers;
Beware therefore in time.
The hour draws close
And fate is fickle when she plies the shears.'

Maggie Lauder, The Tannahill Weavers

Maggie Lauder, Dick Gaughan

Lyric - traditional, probable contribution by Francis Sempill of Beltrees; 17th Century

From The Old Women, George Mackay Brown

"Those same old hags would weave unto their moans
An undersong of terrible holy joy".

The poet reading (YouTube)

A different reading, and commentary (Soundcloud)

A sample of another literary tradition - Sir Walter Scott

From Marmion, Sir Walter Scott, Canto IV, Stanzas X-XIII:


At length up that wild dale they wind,
  Where Crichtoun Castle crowns the bank;
For there the Lion's care assign'd                         
  A lodging meet for Marmion's rank.
That Castle rises on the steep
  Of the green vale of Tyne:
And far beneath, where slow they creep,
From pool to eddy, dark and deep,                         
Where alders moist, and willows weep,
  You hear her streams repine.
The towers in different ages rose;
Their various architecture shows
  The builders' various hands;                             
A mighty mass, that could oppose,
When deadliest hatred fired its foes,
  The vengeful Douglas bands.


Crichtoun! though now thy miry court
  But pens the lazy steer and sheep,                       
  Thy turrets rude, and totter'd Keep,
Have been the minstrel's loved resort.
Oft have I traced, within thy fort,
  Of mouldering shields the mystic sense,
  Scutcheons of honour, or pretence,                       
Quarter'd in old armorial sort,
  Remains of rude magnificence.
Nor wholly yet had time defaced
  Thy lordly gallery fair;
Nor yet the stony cord unbraced,                          
Whose twisted knots, with roses laced,
  Adorn thy ruin'd stair.
Still rises unimpair'd below,
The court-yard's graceful portico;
Above its cornice, row and row                            
  Of fair hewn facets richly show
    Their pointed diamond form,
  Though there but houseless cattle go,
    To shield them from the storm.
  And, shuddering, still may we explore,                   
    Where oft whilom were captives pent,
  The darkness of thy Massy More;
    Or, from thy grass-grown battlement,
May trace, in undulating line,
The sluggish mazes of the Tyne.                            


Another aspect Crichtoun show'd,
As through its portal Marmion rode;
But yet 'twas melancholy state
Received him at the outer gate;
For none were in the Castle then,                         
But women, boys, or aged men.
With eyes scarce dried, the sorrowing dame,
To welcome noble Marmion, came;
Her son, a stripling twelve years old,
Proffer'd the Baron's rein to hold;                        
For each man that could draw a sword
Had march'd that morning with their lord,
Earl Adam Hepburn,--he who died
On Flodden, by his sovereign's side.
Long may his Lady look in vain!                            
She ne'er shall see his gallant train,
Come sweeping back through Crichtoun-Dean.
'Twas a brave race, before the name
Of hated Bothwell stain'd their fame.


And here two days did Marmion rest,                        
  With every rite that honour claims,
Attended as the King's own guest;--
  Such the command of Royal James,
Who marshall'd then his land's array,
Upon the Borough-moor that lay.                            
Perchance he would not foeman's eye
Upon his gathering host should pry,
Till full prepared was every band
To march against the English land.
Here while they dwelt, did Lindesay's wit                  
Oft cheer the Baron's moodier fit;
And, in his turn, he knew to prize
Lord Marmion's powerful mind, and wise,--
Train'd in the lore of Rome and Greece,
And policies of war and peace.                             


It chanced, as fell the second night,
  That on the battlements they walk'd,
And, by the slowly fading light,
  Of varying topics talk'd;
And, unaware, the Herald-bard                              
Said, Marmion might his toil have spared,
  In travelling so far;
For that a messenger from heaven
In vain to James had counsel given
  Against the English war:                                 
And, closer question'd, thus he told
A tale, which chronicles of old

In Scottish story have enroll'd...

J.M.W. Turner, Crichton Castle

Below: Two woodcuts by G.W. Lennox Paterson, 
for the Bicentenary edition of "Poetical Works of Robert Burns" (1958):

Lang may yer lum reek

(‘Long may your chimney smoke’, "A healthy, long life!')

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